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The past few months have seen landmark achievements for Saudi cinema with Saudi films selected for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, purchased for distribution by Netflix, and screened for the first time in the kingdom.
Saudi filmmakers came late to the craft, limited by the lack of opportunities for training and the obstacles imposed by Saudi Arabia’s conservative sociopolitical order. With no theaters allowed in the kingdom, many of the pioneers who emerged in the last decade honed their talents through new media such as YouTube. Today, filmmakers are viewed as avatars of the top-down transformation of Saudi society. With support now increasing from state institutions, Saudi film producers are finding success at home and abroad, prompting cinema connoisseurs to look to Saudi Arabia as “the future of filmmaking in the Gulf.” Still, challenges persist. Dependency on state funding can hinder the emergence of an independent film industry that funds itself in the long term. In addition, theater releases are limited, and few women have made it into the small but growing community.
Ali al-Kalthami is among Saudi Arabia’s earliest visual innovators. AGSIW spoke with this director, producer, content writer, and co-founder of C3Films and Telfaz11 on the challenges and future potential of the Saudi film industry.
AGSIW: You helped found Telfaz11, one of the leading media production companies in the kingdom. When you started making YouTube comedies with Telfaz11, which now has more than 10 million subscribers and six short films on Netflix, there were no models for this type of creative production in Saudi Arabia. From where did you draw inspiration and guidance?
Ali: In our storytelling community, there’s a guy in every diwaniya/majlis who tells beautiful stories in an inspiring way, and people never get bored. That person was my father. I saw the impact these stories had on people, which gave me confidence and taught me the fine art of storytelling, except that his platform was the majlis while mine was visual.
As a child, I used to entertain my family and perform short plays among my siblings, where I was the actor and director. I used to watch anime a lot and learned from it how to narrate stories, especially ones that were emotionally insightful. While working at al-Arabiya in 2008, I helped with its documentaries. After learning the production mindset and experiencing the production process, I realized I could do it. I had the ideas but didn’t get a chance to put them into practice with al-Arabiya. This forced me to quit, establish my own work, and execute my creative ideas.
I failed in my first work, “Almost,” a comedy TV show that didn’t find a sponsor. It was co-directed by a foreign producer and told the story of teenagers who wanted to start a music band in Riyadh. But it was Western-centric and did not depict the local reality. I learned from my mistakes and reacted by pushing the exact opposite theme, presenting the reality of Saudis in local neighborhoods.
I lived a reality that distinguished me from others, growing up in Hay al-Wezarat (a cosmopolitan neighborhood in Riyadh). This melting pot established my character and helped me touch on the reality of different people. Human values are the basis of the relationship between us, regardless of our nationality and culture.
AGSIW: In many ways Telfaz11 came to represent the aspirations and voice of a new Saudi generation. Did you feel this responsibility? And how do you understand your role in this major sociocultural transition?
Ali: Telfaz11 aimed to activate the creative mind of Saudis who are like us. There are many people who live in similar villages, feel the same way, share the same experience, and are starving to see something that depicts their reality. And since we represent such a reality, once we share our work on the internet, we are able to directly connect with their minds and thoughts. I wanted to create an artistic environment. We wanted to document the creative work of this young generation, especially those performers who couldn’t find a platform to present their work. That was the initial idea of Telfaz11, before moving to YouTube comedy shows.
We moved to comedy shows, as we realized we were able to produce our own creative content and distinctive stories. We wanted to depict the Saudi reality, as we felt we were misunderstood, even to our Gulf counterparts. They believe Saudis are either tribal Bedouins or spoiled brats. We started telling stories to show the multicultural, pluralistic society we live in. Hence, we needed a new voice and realized that it was our time to represent the aspirations of this generation. We used the newly emerging social media platforms at that time, and people interacted with us.
My feeling of responsibility is to pave the way for future generations interested in art, transfer knowledge to them, and encourage them to tell their stories through their platforms. It’s my responsibility to invite this young generation and give them an opportunity, hoping to have more good films produced in the region.
AGSIW: How are you trying to portray the Saudi culture and people to the world in your work?
Ali: In this tricky field, if a narrator plays the role of a cultural ambassador, he is bound to fail. Narrating stories is not like documentaries. I do not believe in wearing the ambassador’s hat, but rather the hat of an artist who wants to tell beautiful stories that represent this specific region. As long as we’re telling a distinctive story, people will subconsciously relate to minor cultural details such as the way we talk, dress, our artistic and musical taste, and more.
As Saudis, we’ve been misrepresented by the western media. Some artists believe it’s a weakness. Yet I think it’s a big advantage because there’s already an existing audience watching us and curious to know more about the region. We can overcome this misrepresentation and fix the stereotypes through our creative work.
AGSIW: In Telfaz’s work, females play only minor roles. Don’t you think you’re presenting a social reality that is only applicable to males in the kingdom? Are there new film initiatives aimed at increasing women’s representation?
Ali: We must understand the social fabric in Saudi Arabia and the situation of women over the last 80 years. The problem is that Telfaz11 is more Najdi-centric (Najd is perceived as a conservative region in the kingdom) and female representation is still stigmatized in our society. This is a discouraging environment for females interested in acting.
Let’s not forget the culture of segregation we’ve been through, as we do not usually meet women, and the stories we produce reflect this reality. This “taboo” is breaking gradually with the emergence of institutional cinematic work and as the public is becoming more accepting of arts and theater. With all of these obstacles, we have had many successful experiences with females in Telfaz11, especially on Folaim, one of our 10 YouTube channels. Also, there are currently creative female directors working silently, but there’s a lack of documentation of their work on the internet, since it may expose them to bullying, unfortunately. And, by the way, I’m working with a great female director, Hind al-Fahhad, in my next series, and I’m looking forward to it.
With the current transition that has given women a greater role in our society, this reality will be reflected in our stories.
AGSIW: In 2006, religious extremists stormed the stage during a live performance of a play they believed conflicted with religion at al-Yamama University, and the play was shut down. This shook society and sparked controversy among Saudis. Why did you choose to focus on this unfortunate incident in your Netflix film, “Wasati”?
Ali: I wanted to document a stage of life in Saudi that I call “hostility to art and theater.” Even though it’s a shameful incident, we dealt with it positively in the film, by presenting it in a way that shows we’ve recovered from our past. We added a human element, in the form of a story of a blind person who was a victim of this attack to create some pathos and ended it with a happy note to create a sense of irony.
AGSIW: The state has increased its engagement in the filmmaking field, most recently through the Ministry of Culture. How do you evaluate the overall institutional engagement in Saudi film initiatives and how does it affect your work?
Ali: I would not have believed it if I were told this was going to happen a couple of years ago. Institutional reforms in filmmaking were so fast. This overwhelming feeling could have disabled some people, but at the same time it pushed others to take it seriously. I waited for this to happen for 10 years. We were the first to benefit from this support through “Ithra,” an Aramco-sponsored project that contributed to the success of our work and made it to Netflix.
This support is needed due to the emerging polarity in the filmmaking world of either big-budget blockbusters or independent low-budget projects. Also, we have entered a 100-year-old cinematographic world, yet we’re still beginners. Not to forget the remarkable transformation in the cinema world, especially with the entry of streaming platforms such as Netflix, which may be a challenge for us due to our limited experience.
Still, relying on institutional support in the long term is not in our interest. We must work towards sustainability and a commercial model that can attract investors and benefit the overall Saudi economy. If this doesn’t happen, we are wasting our money.
AGSIW: Tell us about your upcoming cinematic projects. Will you produce longer films? Who do you consider your audience?
Ali: After our experience with “Wasati,” we realized our work could easily evolve into cinematic films. I am currently in the phase of writing a full feature film and series. We’re hoping to get more work in the cinema and on Netflix soon.
I’m sure we could target a broader audience. I believe the current generation in this world shares a lot in common in terms of artistic taste, music, and humor. The world has become a small village, thanks to globalization. This was evident in our Netflix series, “Six Windows in the Desert”. The Netflix crew was impressed by the amazing number of viewers around the world and compared our work to other popular series on Netflix, in terms of viewers. That’s why I believe there’s a golden opportunity for Saudis to enter the cinematic world.
Filmmaking in Saudi Arabia has the potential to revive good filmmaking. This sounds exaggerated, but the Saudi narrative may be like the French new wave film movement in the mid-1950s or Italian neorealism in the mid-1940s. These are all cinematic experiences that matured the film industry rather than pure commercial films. I believe we can do this.
is a former research associate at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, researching Gulf politics, society, and culture.
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